This Friday marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most destructive decisions in the modern American media history, a shamefully successful effort to divide our public airwaves along partisan lines, a choice that made a few people rich while impoverishing our democracy.
On August 4, 1987, the Reagan-era Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal the Fairness Doctrine, the sound policy that preserved a diversity of viewpoints in American broadcast media. The New York Times reported at the time:
The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously today to abolish its fairness doctrine on the ground that it unconstitutionally restricts the free-speech rights of broadcast journalists.
“We seek to extend to the electronic press the same First Amendment guarantees that the print media have enjoyed since our country’s inception,” said the new chairman of the F.C.C., Dennis R. Patrick.
He and the three other commissioners said the 38-year-old fairness doctrine was stifling the democratic debate it was supposed to promote…The doctrine, which evolved through court rulings and commission policy statements over the years, requires broadcasters to give contrasting viewpoints on issues of public importance. In addition to news reports, it can apply to advocacy advertising, as it did in the case that led to today’s ruling.
The justification for applying the doctrine to broadcasting was that in contrast to the potentially infinite number of newspapers and magazines, there were a limited number of frequencies and channels and thus a limited number of broadcast outlets…
In a comment typical of several advocacy groups, Ralph Nader called today’s decision a major setback…
“The fairness doctrine is not only constitutionally permissible, it is constitutionally required,” Mr. Nader said. Its repeal, he added, means that broadcasters “can ignore crucial issues or present only one side” of debates, and that news judgment will increasingly reflect a business orientation. Mr. Nader said such issues as women’s rights, the health effects of smoking, and the safety of nuclear power plants would have come to far less public prominence had the fairness doctrine not been in effect.
Nader’s words were prophetic, as just under a year later, on August 1, 1988, Rush Limbaugh’s Sacramento, California-based radio program was syndicated nationwide…and talk-radio stations across the country soon began to run right-wing agitprop from dawn to dusk, flooding the public airwaves with shameless demonization of Democrats and progressives–and helping to create the media/political culture that allowed a candidate as vulgar as Donald Trump to seize control of the White House last November.
As Steven Rendall notes, the Fairness Doctrine was a net benefit to the public as a whole:
There are many misconceptions about the Fairness Doctrine. For instance, it did not require that each program be internally balanced, nor did it mandate equal time for opposing points of view. And it didn’t require that the balance of a station’s program lineup be anything like 50/50.
Nor, as Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly claimed, was the Fairness Doctrine all that stood between conservative talkshow hosts and the dominance they would attain after the doctrine’s repeal. In fact, not one Fairness Doctrine decision issued by the FCC had ever concerned itself with talkshows. Indeed, the talkshow format was born and flourished while the doctrine was in operation. Before the doctrine was repealed, right-wing hosts frequently dominated talkshow schedules, even in liberal cities, but none was ever muzzled…The Fairness Doctrine simply prohibited stations from broadcasting from a single perspective, day after day, without presenting opposing views…
Indeed, when it was in place, citizen groups used the Fairness Doctrine as a tool to expand speech and debate. For instance, it prevented stations from allowing only one side to be heard on ballot measures. Over the years, it had been supported by grassroots groups across the political spectrum, including the ACLU, National Rifle Association and the right-wing Accuracy In Media.
As a guarantor of balance and inclusion, the Fairness Doctrine was no panacea. It was somewhat vague, and depended on the vigilance of listeners and viewers to notice imbalance. But its value, beyond the occasional remedies it provided, was in its codification of the principle that broadcasters had a responsibility to present a range of views on controversial issues.
Of course, that principle was offensive to those who dreamed of having the public airwaves broadcasting only Republican talking points. That dream has largely been realized (no, for the final time, NPR is not a progressive alternative to right-wing radio). Limbaugh himself damaged the right-wing radio racket five years ago after he attacked reproductive-rights advocate Sandra Fluke, but the atrocious arguments advanced on right-wing radio since the late-1980s took hold with millions of American voters—and when Trump ran as the talk-radio candidate, those voters were willing to move heaven and earth to put him into the White House.
The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine hurt this country. That one action gave us three decades of radio programs that recklessly reaffirmed prejudices, smeared Democrats so thoroughly that some parts of this country have now seemingly become off-limits for the party, and set Americans at each other’s throats. Some legacy, eh?